Truth's little helpers

May 13, 1992

Truth shall make you free, it says in the Good Book, but the time frame involved is wearyingly long for some folks. They must give truth a little shove -- in a good cause.

The visionary wisdom of Chief Seattle, who lived in the Puget Sound area more than a century ago, resounded in last month's Earth Day celebrations. An illustrated version of a speech attributed to him, "Brother Eagle, Sister Sky," is a best-seller.

"The earth is our mother," the chief is said to have said. "What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted by talking wires?"

Good stuff. We wish we'd said that about uncontrolled suburban sprawl around Baltimore. We also wish Chief Seattle had said it in the first place. Those words, and most of the chief's noble rhetoric, were written in 1971 by Ted Perry in a script for a film on the environment.

There was a Chief Seattle. In 1854 he gave a speech in the form of a "letter" to President Franklin Pierce. It impressed one Dr. Henry Smith, who published his recollections of it 33 years later. But that text doesn't contain the message now attributed to the chief. It was mostly about the difference between Indian and Christian spiritualism. Chief Seattle, by the way, was a Roman Catholic.

Anachronisms in the alleged Seattle oeuvre -- in it he laments the coming of the railroad and the slaughter of the bison, both of which happened after his death -- led to the discovery that the chief's wisdom has evolved in recent years, especially since Mr. Perry's film script, which the writer describes as "pure fiction," was added.

The people who keep pushing the Chief Seattle myth know better. A spokesman for the Earth Day U.S.A. Committee said it had heard the doubts about the speech but decided to distribute it after checking with some American Indians. Dial Books, which published the book, says it has no plans to reattribute the words now given to Chief Seattle.

Susan Jeffers, who created and illustrated the book, said: "Basically, I don't know what he said, but I do know that the Native American people lived this philosophy." In an afterword to the book she wrote: "What matters is that Chief Seattle's words inspired -- and continue to inspire -- a most compelling truth: In our zeal to build and possess, we may lose all that we have."

Ah, there it is: a higher truth, a metaphorical truth. When Ronald Reagan mixed metaphorical truths into his stories about welfare, family life and his own war record, we called them whoppers. The environmentalist message is strong enough to stand on real facts. It needn't be muddied with deeper truths that aren't true.

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